Robert Whitcomb: A Failure to Communicate, NRA, Green International Airport, and More

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Robert Whitcomb, columnist
“The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.”

-- D.H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature
 

What an eerie time of the year. Soft air, brief brightness in the middle of the day, a long mellow dimness later, dried leaves blowing around, quick cooling even after a hot day.

 

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In the Internet Age, why can’t information systems be used to alert law-enforcement officials when someone like Stephen Paddock buys as much high-powered weaponry as he did to achieve his aim of mass murder in Las Vegas? And one wonders what the framers of the sloppily written Second Amendment, which protects gun rights in the context of the need for a “well-regulated Militia,’’ would have thought of the firepower now available to just one man.

 

Paddock sounds like a classic case of American anomie – the angry and mostly solitary male drifting around an arid, windswept and rootless suburbia/exurbia sometimes distracted from his furies by gambling in glitzy Vegas casinos and doing God knows what else. American cultural vacancy – getting worse and worse.

 

As always in such cases, the GOP,   the NRA and the very profitable gun industry (but I repeat myself) try to divert the public’s attention from the gun-access issue by saying that we need to boost efforts to reduce mental illness. They like to imply that all heavily armed mass murderers are mentally ill as well as, of course, evil people.

 

But researchers have found that only a small minority of these mass killers have diagnosed mental illnesses. For instance, the National Center for Health Statistics found that fewer than 5 percent of the 120,000 gun-related murders in 2001-2010 were by people diagnosed with mental illness, Olga Khazan reported in The Atlantic. Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox found, after looking at a database of mass shootings, that just 15 percent of the murderers had a psychotic disorder. To read The Atlantic’s piece, hit this link:

 

 

Studies have found that the killers usually shared a tendency to blame others for their self-created problems, as well as social isolation and a love of guns and other weaponry, which makes them feel stronger.

 

Of course, America would benefit from better mental-health services in many ways, but that in itself won’t have much effect on mass shootings. Only making it less easy to buy guns and ammo that can be used to kill and maim groups of people with military-scale firepower will do that. 

 

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Playboy cover featuring Donald Trump
Much has been made of the recently deceased Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner’s  assault on old-fashioned sexual mores and his support of free expression, even including publishing a little literature (e.g., John Updike) from time to time. But to me he was mostly just one of the great promoters of American materialism –the idea that fulfillment was to be associated with having a mansion, fancy clothes, expensive liquor,  snazzy sports cars, etc. Think Donald Trump.

 

In the end, this fascination with stuff ends in the sort of moral emptiness represented by Trump and Paddock.

 

With the articles, accompanying photos and glitzy ads in what became a very profitable publication, he did his part to intensify Americans’ desire for the least important things in life and, all in all, to erode the most admirable aspects of American culture, such as a sense of community and a willingness to sacrifice.

 

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I wouldn't be surprised if it’s Russians doing the very dangerous sonic bombarding of the U.S. Embassy in Havana, not the Cubans, perhaps to sabotage a U.S.-Cuba rapprochement.

 

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President Trump and congressional Republicans have floated the idea of eliminating the deductibility of state and local taxes on federal personal-income-tax forms. (That would hit upper-middle-class people in southern New England hard.) Not coincidentally this would most affect affluent Blue States, most importantly New York and California, which have high taxes and extensive public services. It’s all part of a much broader plan to slash taxes for Trump and other very rich people, especially those who, like the president, have non-publicly traded companies that take in “pass-through’’ income that goes directly to the owners.

 

Because even huge blue New York and California have GOP congresspeople and they would join their Democratic colleagues in fighting for that deductibility, it seems at the moment that the change won't be made.

 

In any case, the issue reminds me of the gross differences in tax policies between the states. The Red States tend to have lousy public services, high poverty, no or low state income taxes but high sales taxes, which are regressive – they disproportionately hit the middle class and the poor.

 

Red States tend to disproportionately represent the interest of rich people and big business, who, of course, like most of us, seek to pay as little in taxes as possible. These interests have relatively more power in Red State legislatures and governorships than in Blue States, whose citizens tend to demand stronger state government roles in education, social services, the environment and some other sectors, and thus tolerate higher taxes.

 

And these better public services pay off: Blue States remain as a group much richer than Red States and with better metrics on health, education, poverty, environment and physical infrastructure, including water and transportation. Indeed, one of the surprises, perhaps, over the last few decades is how the politically powerful (they control the legislative, executive and (mostly) the judicial branches) Red States still lag way behind the Northeast, with its hefty income taxes (except New Hampshire), in so many socio-economic ways.

 

The fact is that most people are still better off in the Northeast, even as they complain about our taxes.  And the two greatest entrepreneurial, innovation and invention centers in America are Silicon Valley, in high-tax California, the Boston-Cambridge-Route 128 complex in high-tax Massachusetts, and the great wealth creator of very-high-tax, high-public-service New York City.

 

The worst poverty in America remains in the most Red States, and their tax systems, geared to the personal interests of plutocrats such as the Koch Brothers, helps explain why.

 

Of course many well-off retirees will move to Florida from the Northeast for the weather and to avoid income taxes. They no longer need good schools for their children, who have long since grown. Then when get really old, many move back to be taken care of by their children and take advantage of social services, such as mass transit, that are lacking in Florida (which I suppose might be more precisely called a Purple State).

 

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President Donald Trump
As for the Trump plan to lower the 35 percent corporate-income tax rate to 20 percent: Many big companies already avoid paying that rate through various loopholes. Republican pols assert that such a cut would lead to a hiring boom. That’s ridiculous. Big U.S. companies have been sitting on record piles of after-tax cash and yet have not gone on hiring sprees and they have kept wages low.  They’re not into sharing! Record amounts of cash have been distributed to investors as dividends (as a semi-retiree mostly living on investments, I love it!) and as gargantuan compensation to senior executives. There’s no sign that would change after a tax cut. Most large U.S. companies, pressed to maximize quarterly earnings, have shown remarkably little interest in building for the long term by spending more of their vast cash reserves on training and research and development.

 

The Trump tax program is just more of the trickle-down economics that won’t expand middle-class purchasing power – an expansion that would give a boost to growth, unlike even more concentration of wealth at the top.  As it is, long-term economic growth seems fated to continue historically slow anyway because of demographics (especially an aging population) and a slowdown in technological innovation.

 

 

Whitcomb's weekly appearance on GoLocal LIVE

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You don’t tend to think of New England as particularly agricultural, especially southern New England. But consider that in heavily urban, suburban and exurban Connecticut, whose rich southwest corner is part of metro New York, agriculture generates up to $4 billion a year in revenue. And the crops are changing: Making wine has become important, as has aquaculture (mostly shellfish) while tobacco, traditional commercial fishing, and a logging have declined. (I can remember the vast shade tobacco (for cigars) farms in the Connecticut Valley. See the movie Parrish.) And in parts of the state there’s been a resurgence of small-scale farming selling fruit and vegetables, often marketed as “organic’’ (a claim often difficult to verify) sold in season at the sort of roadside stands that I remember used to be along small roads leading to Cape Cod.

 

With so many big malls and their vast parking lots closing, it’s pleasant to think that some of this space might be profitably put back into agriculture to serve the local market, as much of this land was used 200 years ago.

 

Might climate warming extend the growing season a lot for some crops?

 

University of Connecticut researchers wrote in a recent report: “The agricultural industry in Connecticut appears to be restructuring into new market segments where innovation, diversity and economic viability are key. This may be a consequence of external factors such as competition from other regions and countries as well as natural shocks like climate change.’’

 

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Anti-abortion conservative Republican Rep. Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania says he’ll retire at the end of his term, after news that he asked his mistress to get an abortion. I suspect that this sort of personal hypocrisy – including about homosexuality, too -- is extensive in the current version of the  GOP. And consider the exciting personal life of that great abortion foe and darling of the Christian Right Donald Trump.

 

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Here’s an example of how environmental regulations can pay off big: Lake trout are back in Lake Champlain after a disappearance of many years. Experts cite better sewage treatment and reduced phosphorus runoff from farms and other measures to clean the lake as well as a successful campaign to reduce the number of sea lampreys. They’re an invasive, parasitical species that suck fluids from trout and other fish. The lamprey got into the lake through canals connected it to the St. Lawrence, which of course flows into the sea.

 

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Demolition completed, but now another ask
Oh, no! Will this end up as another unsightly parking lot in the middle of the city?

 

The Procaccianti Group says it wants the City of Providence to give it more time to build a nine-story, extended-stay hotel in downtown Providence in a tax-stabilization plan involving what is now an ugly empty lot where once a very ugly Brutalist office building stood before being torn down for the hotel. Will it ever be built?

 

What’s the problem? Financing disappearing? A fear that there will be too many new hotel rooms in the city to fill? The big hole that Procaccianti has left downtown may scare away other developers.

 

 

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More happy news from T.F. Green Airport: The new, longer 8,700-foot runway is open ahead of time.  This means that the airport management, brilliantly led by Iftikhar Ahmad, can accelerate its push to make Green a truly major domestic and international airport, competing directly with Boston’s Logan International Airport and New York’s airports, too.

 

The runway, whose completion marks the end, for now, of a $200 million upgrade at the airport, means not only that Green customers will finally have the convenience of flying nonstop to the West  Coast and most big cities in Western and Central Europe but that  life will become easier for Rhode Island and Southeastern Massachusetts companies doing  business abroad.

 

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Considering the intensity of Hurricane Maria, that Puerto Rico is a mountainous island to which most of its supplies must be shipped by boat and in which landslides can seal off large areas, the Feds are doing about as well as could be expected under the leadership of FEMA chief Brock Long, a very good Trump appointee.

 

Trump has gotten much heat asserting that relief efforts in Puerto Rico have been as energetic as in Texas (Hurricane Harvey) and Florida (Hurricane Irma), and he added, “It’s actually a much tougher situation.” He’s right, at least on the last point, whatever you think of Trump’s stupid and demeaning words about some Puerto Rican leaders and his passing remark implying that Maria wasn’t a “real catastrophe’’ like Hurricane Katrina. It’s simply Trump relentlessly speaking off the cuff, which his fans love and his critics have learned to mostly just shrug off; as even Wall Street did when he suggested that all of Puerto Rico’s debt would be wiped away. People are starting to ignore him.

 

It’s hard to know how many people died as a result of the storm. We’ll see what the relief people find in the hill towns. But it seems sure to far exceed the official 34 as of this writing.

 

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Gentrification of Mount Hope section of Providence
A sign of the times in retailing and urban gentrification: What had been a convenience store in a gritty part of the East Side of Providence has now become Rebelle Artisan Bagels, owned and operated by Milena Pagan, a chemical-engineering graduate of MIT! It reminds me of the French restaurant I went to recently with my younger daughter in the middle of the once fearsomely high-crime Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn.

 

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I hope that the leadership of Bryant University watches the movie In the Name of Confucius about China’s Confucius Institutes, one of which unfortunately is at Bryant, which has long sought tight ties with institutions in that communist dictatorship. As I’ve written here before, these “institutes’’ are spy and propaganda organs of Beijing and do not belong on an American campus. HERE

 

 

 

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Jared Bernstein, writing in Bloomberg News, had a pretty good description of the “post-policy’’ rhetoric-rich, substance-poor current rendition of the GOP:

 

“The problem with the Republican Party isn't that it's too conservative. The problem -- well, one of the big parts of the problem -- is that it has stopped taking governing seriously enough to produce conservative policy solutions for the problems which their own party identifies…. That's a big part of what allowed Trump to win their nomination, and it's why serious conservative anti-Trumpers can't hope to fix things merely by replacing him or waiting him out. ‘’

 

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While walking on a lovely day a few weeks ago near a Brown University athletic field, I was accosted by a couple of very large wild turkeys. With all the manmade environmental devastation we’ve seen, it was heartening to see such once endangered (in New England) country creatures adapting to urban life as well as, well, coyotes. But that doesn’t mean they're friendly.

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 “I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.’’

 

-- Henry David Thoreau

  • 1.

    GREAT: Snow removal

     

    In Raimondo’s first winter in office, Rhode Island was rocked by snow — a plethora of 10-inch storms and about 100 inches of total snowfall.

    While snow removal in Providence was a disaster, Raimondo’s team looked like war-torn veterans in cleaning up the snow on state roads. 

     
  • 2.

    UGLY: Ethics Violation for Lally

     

    The Raimondo administration tapped State Representative Don Lally for a slot at the Department of Business Regulations — before he had been out of office for one year.

    The Ethics Commission found that the appointment violated the Rhode Island ethics laws.

    Fail. 

     
  • 3.

    BAD: Appointment of McDonald

     

    The appointment of the former aide to former Governors Don Carcieri and Lincoln Chafee, Jamie McDonald, to head DCYF when she did not have the minimum qualifications turned out to be a BAD decision that led to UGLY outcomes.

     
  • 4.

    BAD: Out-of-State Staffers

     

    It was supposed to be a strategy of bringing new ideas and new people into to elevate Rhode Island, but it turned out to be a collection of unemployed staffers from the Governor’s office in Maryland (back when Hillary was the Presidential front-runner...and national ties oh-so-appealing). 

    They were ineffective and dismissive of Rhode Islanders. A number of them are gone, but Rhode Island Commerce is still littered with them.

     
  • 5.

    UGLY: Raimondo’s Initial Toll Plan

     

    The initial toll plan proposed by the Raimondo administration was government funding as its worse.

    The architect of Raimondo’s truck toll infrastructure plan is the same firm that the State of Rhode Island is presently in litigation against, for its role in the state’s loss of over $100 million in the 38 Studios collapse.

    First Southwest is a key defendant in the state of Rhode Island's effort to recover the millions in loss loan funds and damages.  Ultimately, the firm settled -  and paid $16 million.

     
  • 6.

    GOOD: Final Toll Plan

     

    Rhode Island has the 47th ranked roads and bridges and the final truck toll plan minimized the influence and costs of the program. The House trimmed back Raimondo’s initial plan and shifted the structure of financing minimizing the Wall Street boondoggle.

    Now, roads are getting fixed.

     
  • 7.

    UGLY: Blocking Release of 38 Studios Documents

     

    In October of 2016, GoLocal filed suit asking the court to force Raimondo to require her administration to release the State Police 38 Studios interview notes. Raimondo repeatedly claimed that they could not be released because they were tied to the Grand Jury.

    That simply was not true and a few months later many of those documents were released, but not all. 

    GoLocal continues to press for all of the State Police records.

     
  • 8.

    UGLY: Fate of Children at DCYF

     

    As GoLocal reported in April, "In Rhode Island, ten babies all under 18-months old, have died in the past 26 months, and at a recent State House hearing, it was disclosed by the state’s Child Advocate that two new 'near deaths' are now under investigation."

    The disclosure was made during a House Finance sub-committee meeting in which most of the subcommittee's members were missing for the majority of the meeting.

     
  • 9.

    BAD: McDonald Goes to Work at Deloitte

     

    The revolving door from government, to private consultants that have contracts with governmen,t always raises questions, but in this case it is simply inappropriate for Jamia McDonald, who was neither qualified nor competent at running DCYF to go to work for UHIP contractor Deloitte (who has not demonstrated many competencies).

    Raimondo should have told Deloitte not to do it.

     
  • 10.

    GREAT: Jobs Numbers

     

    In July, Rhode Island hit a record number of Rhode Islanders working — just under 500,000. The long recovery from the Great Recession is over.

     
  • 11.

    GREAT: Girls and Coding

     

    Raimondo has pounded a constant beat to encourage girls and young women to focus on education and careers in technology.

    Raimondo has supported the group Girls Who Code, which states: Women represent one of the single largest untapped sources of talent in the technology field and according to new research, only 24% of technology jobs are held by women today. Solving this challenge demands a tailored and sequenced series of actions starting in junior high school that is sustained throughout high school and college.

     
  • 12.

    BAD: Deloitte Sponsorship

     

    Just days after blasting UHIP consultant Deloitte, Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo spoke at a conference in California -- sponsored by Deloitte. 

    "We paid them a lot of money, we didn’t get what we paid for," Raimondo said at the time of Deloitte's involvement in the UHIP debacle. "And they represented to us that it was in much better shape than in fact it was: defective functionality, incomplete interfaces, engines that still aren’t working."

    Days later, Raimondo was en route to headline the Deloitte-sanctioned event. 

    "Deloitte is not paying for any of the travel," said Raimondo spokesperson David Ortiz. "She had already committed to be at the event, and was able to have a private conversation with the CEO of Deloitte Consulting, who committed to being in regular communication with the Governor."

     
  • 13.

    GOOD: Cost of College Funding

     

    Raimondo deserves credit for bringing attention to the issue of the high cost of college education. Ultimately, her proposal got severely trimmed back and she insisted on a number of provisions which undermine the program — no means test, no requirement for grads to work in Rhode Island and minimum GPA at a measly 2.5.

    But, give credit where credit is due.  

     
  • 14.

    UGLY: Perception of Staff Self-Dealing - Smiley Inc.

     

    While working for Governor Raimondo, Chief-of Staff Brett Smiley owns a political consulting business that represents clients including Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, and he has hired his consulting firm’s former staffers to work in the Governor’s office. Smiley earns more than $170,000 per year in his role for Raimondo.

    This summer, Providence City records show that he and his husband Jim DeRentis sold their house to Brown University for $1.1 million — 30% more than the assessed value of the house at $843,600.

     
  • 15.

    UGLY: Perception of Staff Self-Dealing - Neuman and DraftKings

     

    Governor Gina Raimondo’s first Chief of Staff  Steven Neuman was negotiating legislation that impacted one of the most controversial companies in America -- just three weeks before his wife started her job for the very company as Vice President, GoLocal has learned.

    Boston-based DraftKings is a “fantasy sports” startup company that is now valued in excess of $1 billion, and is under fire in many states for being an unregulated gambling venture.

    After Neuman’s wife was hired, only then did he seek an advisory opinion from the Rhode Island Ethics Commission on how to handle a potential conflict moving forward, but the letter seeking the advisory opinion did not speak to Neuman’s involvement in legislation during his wife’s hiring process.

     
  • 16.

    GREAT: DMV Reboot

     

    Rhode Island DMV has been the “House of Pain” for years and faced with a major upgrade to the software, the Raimondo administration (maybe for the first time) under promised and over delivered.

    The process was not perfect, but it was without a major tech failure and the outcome is an improved customer experience.

     
  • 17.

    GOOD: Raimondo Releasing Tax Returns

     

    One of the areas of demonstrating transparency — Raimondo and her husband deserve credit for demonstrating transparency to their personal wealth.

     
  • 18.

    BAD: Raimondo’s Invenergy Position

     

    It is hard to know exactly what Gina Raimondo’s position is on the proposed and controversial gas powered power plant proposed for Burrillville. When the plant was proposed, she strongly endorsed the project.

    Then, Raimondo said she would leave it to the State's Siting Council to determine the project's fate. Then, she took campaign donations from top officials with the company and their agents. Then she said she regretted "putting her thumb on the scale" of the the process.  

    Which one is it?

    Now, she faces an opponent whose primary political focus has been fighting Invenergy.  

     
  • 19.

    UGLY: Raimondo Gives $3.6 M to Los Angeles “Slum Lord”

     

    Governor Gina Raimondo and the Board of the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation voted in September of 2016 to provide Urban Smart Growth — which is run by controversial developer Lance Robbins — up to a maximum of $3,569,657 in Rebuild Rhode Island Tax Credits.

    However, one of the top advocacy lawyers in the country, Lauren Saunders, told GoLocalProv.com following the announcement that “Robbins was one of the most dishonest and unscrupulous people I have come across in my career working for vulnerable tenants and consumers. I cannot imagine entrusting any (public) money to him.”

    Despite Rhode Island leaders questioning the decision, the Raimondo administration pushed forward. 

     
  • 20.

    GREAT: Combating Opioid

     

    Governor Gina Raimondo signed several pieces of legislation strengthening Rhode Island’s response to the opioid crisis in August. 

    "This epidemic is our single greatest public health crisis, and the legislation I signed today will help our state fight back and save lives. I hear stories from families hurt by overdose everywhere I go. Fentanyl-related overdose deaths in Rhode Island have spiked in the past year, and I commend the General Assembly for passing legislation that specifically targets this problem. By ensuring that patients are aware of the risks of opioid addiction and increasing the penalties for trafficking fentanyl, we are steps closer to winning this fight,” said Raimondo.

     
  • 21.

    UGLY: UHIP

     

    Raimondo has overseen the greatest financial failure, staffing failure, and human failure for Rhode Islanders -- ever.

    Rhode Island Auditor General Dennis Hoyle said that the state had "unrealistic expectations" regarding the rollout of UHIP - and that project costs to develop the integrated eligibility system known as UHIP/RIBridges and HealthSource RI totaled $407.3 million at April 30, 2017. 

    The auditor’s report includes observations -- including that there was "a near-term over-emphasis of purported savings" - and that the state "did not have an established and staffed project management function in place to support and facilitate the state’s oversight of this large and very complex technology initiative."

     
  • 22.

    UGLY: Budget Management

     

    Raimondo was supposed to enter office as an experienced budget manager — both from her experience as a venture capitalist and as Rhode Island’s General Treasurer.

    But today, the budget shortfall (as of September 2017) is more than $230 million and there is confusion as to how she will cut $25 million in this year’s budget.

     
  • 23.

    GREAT: Wexford

     

    Between federal and state investments in moving I-195, roughly a billion dollars has been spent over nearly 20 years. Raimondo deserves credit for breaking the logjam.

    "For too long, the I-195 land was nothing but dirt," Raimondo said at the Wexford groundbreaking. "Today marks the start of something transformational, not just for this land, but for our state and its economy. This complex will become the epicenter of Rhode Island's resurgence, creating jobs at every rung of the ladder, from janitors to Ph.D. computer scientists. We've worked hard for this, and we are finally seeing the results of our efforts. Wexford, Cambridge Innovation Center, Johnson & Johnson, Brown University and others are making an investment in Rhode Island because we are making crucial, forward-thinking investments in our people and in our economy. This is just the beginning."

     
  • 24.

    UGLY: Wexford's False Claims, Lack of Transparency, and Mismanagement 

     

    In an interview with GoLocal last week, Raimondo continued to refuse to answer questions about the leases between Wexford and Brown University, Cambridge Innovation Center, and Johnson & Johnson, citing that they are private -- and unconcerned as to whether Rhode Islanders should know where their $40 million is going to. 

    In January, a GoLocal investigation found that the permanent job claims for the Wexford project by the Raimondo administration were inflated. 

    Raimondo had repeatedly claimed that project will create 1,000 new permanent jobs in Rhode Island. After weeks of requesting information about tenants, rents, and job creation, GoLocal was finally able to secure actual job numbers for the project and then fact check those claims. 

    In fact, actual jobs created will be closer to 80 to 90.

    $1 Million Wasted

    A GoLocal investigation uncovered that the Raimondo administration will waste $1 million for incentives building out space for Johnson & Johnson. 

    The monies go to the private developer Wexford and in two years, Johnson & Johnson will leave to move into another Wexford space — which is receiving $40 million in incentives.

     
  • 25.

    UGLY: Lack of Support to Rhode Island Companies

     

    Under Governor Gina Raimondo, the agency in charge of building Rhode Island’s economy has spent 65 percent of its contract dollars with out-of-state companies in the last two years.

    Nearly $8 million of taxpayer dollars went to consultants as far away as New York, Toronto, London, and Frankfurt under the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation. Even the money spent on porta-johns contracted for Volvo races went to out-of-state interests by an overwhelming margin. 

    Havas Got as Much as All of Rhode Island

    No companies scored more consulting dollars than consulting businesses located in New York. Havas, the public relations firm that oversaw the development of the tourism campaign that included the now infamous promotion video for Rhode Island that included footage from Iceland,  received payment in the past two years more than $4 million — $4,114,025.78 according to data provided to GoLocal from Commerce.

    Havas has been paid nearly as much as all Rhode Island contracts combined during the past two years.

     
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